What is an online journalist?

Craig McGill recently asked: What is an online journalist?

So what should a digital/online reporter be? Should they go out on stories alongside print reporters and basically be someone who takes video, pictures and audio soundbites and then files it back to the office? Should they also be editing that content just as a wordsmith edits his words? Or should all of that be the work of the reporter and there shouldn’t be an online tag? Said reporter then comes back to the office and crafts/edits the words and everything else? Seems like a lot of work for one person.

It caused me to think, because I have always defined myself as an online journalist, despite the fact that I was trained as a newspaper journalist and for most of my career I worked for a public service broadcaster, the BBC. Yet by 1999, just five years into my career, I had already worked in every major news medium: Newspapers, television, radio and the internet.

I will admit that my motivation for the self-definition has been, in part, an act of defiance, a professional statement to the high priests of the Church of Journalism that, despite the perceived power and importance of newspapers and television, I chose to work online. Why defiance? I made the move online in 1996. A couple of years later, when I considered moving back to newspapers, my experience was dismissed as if my work online didn’t count. Even computer-savvy journalists, even back in 1998, told me that I would have to chose between technical work and journalism. Instead I forged my own path at the BBC.

There I covered stories for radio, television and online, such as the Microsoft anti-trust trial and the dot.com boom. For years, I had a slot on BBC 5 Live talking about technology and the internet, and I covered US politics, current affairs and entertainment for the website. There wasn’t a binary decision to be made about whether to be online or be a journalist, whether to be technical or editorial – I was both. Any field journalist knows technical knowledge is a requirement for the job: If you can’t get your story, your audio and your video back to the office, the quality of the journalism does’t matter.

After the dot.com crash, I watched as many of my online journalism colleagues were laid off, their divisions gutted, downsized or destroyed. Most of them were so disenchanted with the experience that they left journalism entirely. In 2002, the BBC News website did a Q&A – the questions came from the site’s readers – with Peter Jennings in the New York studios of ABC News. After the interview, Mr Jennings took us to the online department, introduced us to the staff and showed us their work with collegial pride. He grumbled that “the Mouse (Disney)”, ABC’s corporate parent, didn’t value their work much and was cutting staff.

It’s an attitude that is still common in journalism today, even if the number of digital staff is increasing. You can see it in the responses to Craig’s question, for example, the journalists who believe that their online colleagues do little more than “type the stories up for the web”. It’s about as dismissive as Truman Capote saying that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was not writing but merely typing.

In the early part of this decade, I remember talking to university classes in the Washington DC area where I was based. They would ask how they could get a job like mine, and I had to tell the students that my job was one of a handful of editorial online positions. At that time, most online positions merely re-purposed content from newspapers or broadcasters for rather unimaginative websites. A large number of the sites that provided original news reporting for the web got wiped out in the crash. It was content on the web, not of the web, but not by choice of the journalists, rather, it was due to lack of vision by the editors and management who were so focused on the present that they never looked up to see the future.

Beginning just a couple of years ago, that changed. Broadband had reached a tipping point in the United States, western Europe and many parts of Asia. Despite the dot.com crash, people had continued to make the internet an important part of their lives. News organisations woke up from their post-crash schadenfreude to realise that the internet hadn’t died. Yes, it might have been a victim of irrational exuberence by some, and get-rich mania by others, but the medium had continued to grow and develop.

Now, some newspapers find the shoe on the other foot. The internet continues to rise as a medium and newspapers and their business are in decline.

I guess this is all a rather roundabout way to explain not what is means to be an online journalist, but for me, why the self-definition as an online journalist means more than a job description.

So back to Craig’s original question. What is an online journalist? Craig asked several people to answer the question, including Bryan Murley of the Innovation in College Media blog. Bryan said:

I see an online journalist as one more in mindset than anything. A page designer can be a good online journalist, if given permission. A photographer can be an online journalist or a stick-in-the-mud.

I would have to agree, and it reminds me of Rob Curley’s about the importance of mindset rather than skillset. You can learn to do anything, but you need to have an open mind, professional curiosity, and a passion to try new things and to learn from your experiments.

Throughout most of my career, and even still today, I have to explain that my background is journalism and not computers. I have only taken one computer course in my life, Pascal in high school, and I dropped it after one semester. Since coming to the UK, I have found an anti-technology attitude here that is alien to me. If you use a computer, the media believes that you must be a ‘boffin’ or some pasty, anti-social creature who prefers the company of computers to people. Suw has wondered if this is down to the culture within the university education system which has a history of pitting science against the humanities, and most people in the media have humanities degrees. It’s odd because you can’t walk into a newsroom and not see a computer, but computers still don’t fit into the sense of self of many journalists.

I know my way around a computer and the internet, but I don’t know much about Flash or database programming. I’m a cut-and-paste coder not a developer. I know more about multimedia than I do about developing web applications. I know much more about remote comms than most because so much of my career has been learning how to file from anywhere.

But I know what’s possible, and I know the importance of working with people who know what I don’t. I know that working with a good team can achieve not only what is possible now but redefine what is going to be possible. I know that online journalism is not a mature medium like newspapers, radio and television. It evolves constantly and is still developing forms, styles, conventions and a grammar. That is what excites online journalists. It’s blogs and social networks now, but in a few years, it will be something entirely new.

That is why, through good times and bad, I choose to work online. Yes, the naysayers and the curmudgeons annoy me. The red mist still descends when uninformed people dismiss the internet as a journalistic medium. But I have more than 10 years now of working online for two of the most successful, prestigious news websites in the world. Personally, I don’t feel the need to justify my journalistic credentials to anyone, although there are people in the profession who still ask me to do so.

But there are more innovative and imaginative people to work with now than a few years ago. There are more of us who know what the web is capable of and are eager to just get on with it. That’s why I’m looking forward to 2008. After a lot of groundwork, I’ve got a couple of projects to really sink my teeth into, to explore what is possible with some excellent partners. I can’t wait. Happy New Year!

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